Marwan Barghouti's name evokes strong reactions on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To some Palestinians, Barghouti is the equivalent of Nelson Mandela, a leader unjustly jailed and the only person capable of heading efforts to create an independent Palestinian state.
To many Israelis, Barghouti is a terrorist with blood on his hands who deserves to remain behind bars for the rest of his life.
Since the Islamist group Hamas forcibly took control of all of the Gaza Strip last month, there are new calls in Israel and the Palestinian territories to release the 48-year-old jailed Fatah leader to help fend off further Hamas gains.
"We don't have time to waste," says Israeli lawmaker Ephraim Sneh, a senior Labor party official who, until a recent cabinet re-shuffle, served as Israel's Deputy defense minister. "Look, for us, Hamas taking over Palestine is totally unacceptable and we have to prevent it," Sneh says. "And you cannot defeat Hamas without a strong, moderate Palestinian alternative to Hamas."
But right now, the man leading that alternative to Hamas is Mahmoud Abbas, the increasingly unpopular 72-year-old Fatah leader who's widely seen as indecisive and weak. Under Abbas, the Fatah movement is increasingly splintered and drifting. Many in Abbas's own party see him as ineffectual.
West Supporting Abbas
Nonetheless, Western countries and Israel have pledged to redouble efforts to bolster Abbas following Hamas's armed takeover of Gaza.
In a speech Monday, President Bush pledged an extra $190 million in American humanitarian aid for the Palestinians and $80 million to build up Abbas's security forces. The president also called for an Israeli-Palestinian Middle East peace summit for the Fall, to be led by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
President Abbas met with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week and discussed security amnesties for some Fatah militants aimed at helping strengthen the Palestinian leader.
But to some, Abbas's "emergency government" in the West Bank is a dubious — even doomed — project unless Fatah is led by a more charismatic, popular leader able to rally moderates.
The Islamists of Hamas, what Israeli lawmaker Sneh calls a dangerous Iranian proxy, now have total control of the coastal strip bordering Israel.
For Sneh, the only viable alternative is Barghouti, the street leader of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israel, who's now serving multiple life sentences for murder. Sneh says if Israel is really serious about strengthening Palestinian moderates, the government should explore releasing Barghouti now.
"Because he's moderate and because he is the most popular Palestinian leader," Sneh says. "I would like the Palestinian society to be led by moderates, not by fanatics and the proxies of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad."
Polls Show Support for Barghouti
Recent public opinion polls in the Palestinian territories show that Barghouti would defeat Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh with nearly 60 percent of the vote in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip if new elections were held. Charismatic and articulate, the 48-year-old Barghouti has continued to have a major impact on Palestinian politics — even from behind bars.
Barghouti played a major role in helping to forge the agreement that led to the short-lived "unity government" between Fatah and Hamas. When that power-sharing agreement fell apart amid factional warfare in Gaza, Barghouti's public backing of President Abbas's "emergency government" proved important to building support for the highly controversial move.
Barghouti supporters say he's the only viable alternative to Abbas. Fatah's Salam Fayyad, the Western-educated Palestinian prime minister, is highly regarded. But he's a technocrat and economist, not a charismatic leader.
Former Gaza strongman and controversial Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, a long-time favorite of American intelligence agencies, is more unpopular than ever following the Fatah collapse in Gaza. Many on the Palestinian street see Dahlan as corrupt and out of touch. Hamas calls him a "collaborator."
Professor and pollster Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, questions whether the government of Prime Minister Olmert really wants to strengthen Abbas and other relative Palestinian moderates.
"If they were serious in their efforts to help Fatah, certainly they could have released Barghouti," Hermann says. "Which makes me doubt the sincerity of the Israeli decision makers in their rhetoric about really helping the counter forces to Hamas."
Barghouti grew up in the West Bank and cut his ideological teeth as the political leader of Fatah's armed militant wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Today Barghouti is the de facto leader of Fateh's "young guard." They're reformers who have openly criticized the insular, often autocratic rule of Fatah's founders, the so-called "old guard" whom many on the Palestinian street see as aloof and corrupt.
"The only potential leadership for Fatah is Marwan Barghouti and he is in prison," says Sahed Nimer, a Birzeit University political scientist and a close advisor and friend of the jailed leader. Professor Nimer, who helps run the "Free Marwan Barghouti" campaign, says Fatah remains badly hobbled by a leadership crisis precisely when it most needs a decisive, strong leader to rally Palestinian moderates, negotiate with Israel and attempt to reach out and soften Hamas hardliners.
"The releasing of Marwan Barghouti would be a huge step forward," he says, "It's in the interest of all parties — including Hamas."
Barghouti was arrested by Israeli forces in 2002 at the height of the Second Entifada. He's is currently serving five consecutive life sentences after being convicted of murder for helping to plan suicide bombings in Israel that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk. There's strong opposition in Israel to release any Palestinian with "blood on his hands."
But Israeli analyst Tamar Hermann believes most Israelis would support freeing Barghouti if the political dividend looked promising.
"If tomorrow [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert would say 'Okay, we should release Barghouti to give a push to a real peace process,' I'm sure that we would not see massive opposition on the grass-roots level," Hermann says.
Some Unsure About Barghouti
Others aren't so sure. Many on the Israeli right wing say Barghouti's been unduly lionized. They argue that exaggerated centrism and political prowess obscure Barghouti's enduring radicalism. They point out that Barghouti still advocates violence against Israeli soldiers and civilian settlers in the occupied West Bank — what Barghouti advisor Sahed Nimer calls "legitimate resistance."
"Marwan is saying 'Our hands are open for the peace talks: 1967 borders, a two state solution.' And he is against any operation inside Israel," Nimer says. "But he is with any kind of resistance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," he says. "The occupation soldiers have no business being in Ramallah and Jenin and Nablus. To resist them, this is our duty, this is our right," Nimer says.
Asked about Barghouti recently, Israel's Public Security Minister Avi Dicther said: "When Barghouti finishes serving his five life sentences, he'll still have 30 years left in prison."
Only then, Dicther said, can Israel discuss freeing Marwan Barghouti.